There’s a lot to be said about the pros and cons of tribal knowledge in the workplace and there really is more than one definition. To put it simply, tribal knowledge is information or skills known by an individual or group that is not known outside that group. One of the trademarks of this definition is that it’s commonly used to describe functional—but undocumented—knowledge essential to the operation of an organization. Of course, this is a broad generalization and just one definition of tribal knowledge, but it will do for our purposes.
There are good reasons these undocumented processes are usually looked on as a liability. For example, the smooth operation of a PCB design group requires specific functional skills and knowledge. If this information isn’t accessible through clear and concise documentation, it can only be passed from one employee to another through mentoring or by example. Without proper documentation, critical operational knowledge and procedures can be lost. This can be due to employee turnover, or like the children’s game Telephone, it can become confused and misapplied. After passing from person to person, the final state of a secret message in the game is often hilariously altered from how it originated. In the workplace, however, wasted time and effort aren’t nearly as amusing, especially when it results in lost revenue because those processes and procedures were misunderstood.
It can reasonably be expected that an experienced PCB designer will understand how to lay out different technologies of circuit boards: digital, analog, power, RF, etc. However, a designer won’t necessarily understand the design flow, critical layout techniques, and manufacturing data requirements of a specific company, especially if they are new to the organization. Even something as simple as, “Our standard trace width in this application is X,” can end up as an error if it isn’t properly documented. Although it is true that the newer output file formats, such as IPC-2581, can help mitigate complex procedural problems, such as learning file generation processes, there are still many hurdles caused by tribal knowledge that must be overcome. These include understanding specific manufacturing processes, design documentation details, and specific legal or certification requirements, to name a few.
Another problem with tribal knowledge is how those processes can become stale with time due to the inability to review, refresh, and update undocumented procedures. It makes you wonder just how many errors have been introduced into designs because the “tried and true” methods embedded in tribal knowledge are hopelessly antiquated, which allows mistakes to happen. Along those same lines, how much unnecessary effort has been expended and time lost due to outdated processes still in place? For instance, many newer design systems will automatically track and propagate part numbers and descriptions. Yet some people will still manually record this information because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
So, tribal knowledge is bad, right? Well, maybe not in all circumstances. I would agree that relying on undocumented processes to convey critical procedural information can, in some circumstances, lead to negative or even catastrophic results. But there are some positive outcomes when relying on tribal knowledge as well. Consider the following story of how I once benefited from someone’s tribal knowledge in a completely unexpected way.
Years ago, we moved across town from one house to another. I hired a moving company to do the heavy lifting for us and went with them to supervise the first delivery. However, I witnessed a terrible sight when we returned for the next load. A landscaper hired by the new owner already had ripped out all the existing plants and bushes, as well as unloaded all the new shrubbery on the driveway. Since this is Oregon, it was raining cats and dogs, and the dirt from the new shrubs was creating a sea of mud over the entire driveway. I was in total shock and had no idea how to resolve this situation. We still had a large amount of furniture and possessions to move, and my driveway was completely inaccessible.
At this point, the moving crew supervisor noticed my “deer-in-the-headlights” expression and realized that I was completely incapacitated. Springing into action, he said quite firmly, “Tim, you stay here, and I will take care of this problem.” Hopping out of the truck, he demanded to know who was in charge of the landscape team and then laid down the law very succinctly to their supervisor: “We are moving the previous homeowners out of this house today and will be using this driveway. If the new homeowners don’t want us to drag mud through their brand-new house, you will have this driveway cleaned off in five minutes so that we can proceed.” With the landscapers properly chastised, in very short order we had a clean driveway and proceeded with the move.
I hope the new owner loved our former house as much as we did and ended up with a beautiful yard of new plants and bushes. My point in relating this story, however, is in how the moving crew supervisor used his experience to save the day. I was having a crisis moment, and needed someone who knew what to do and wasn’t afraid to use their knowledge to get the job done. Yet, if you were to look up the processes and procedures for this moving company, I will bet that there wasn’t a single piece of documentation that detailed how to handle a mud-caked driveway filled with shrubbery. Instead, to successfully solve the problem, this supervisor relied on his past experiences in dealing with various scenarios and his gut instincts.
Obviously, documented procedures are essential. But it’s important to react to unique situations with only our experiences and knowledge to guide us; this is what some would label as reliance on tribal knowledge. There is a fine line here, and, realistically, the need for both is important. Considering this, how can we manage tribal knowledge within our organizations to ensure that we get the best results no matter which course of action is required? Here are some ideas.
Facilitate Open Communication
Isolation is a negative aspect of tribal knowledge that should be avoided. Without the ability to freely share information between co-workers, critical procedures will inevitably get siloed by groups or individuals, bringing about the bad results we’ve discussed. Instead, ensure that communication with your co-workers is unencumbered by either technology or company culture. Open communication gives everyone a stake in the game and helps bring to light important process steps that are all too often known only to a few.
Keep Documentation Up to Date
If you don’t want the critical processes in your workflow relegated to tribal knowledge, it’s essential that you keep your documentation fresh. This requires regularly scheduled reviews of your procedures and putting a system in place for workers to report outdated or incorrect processes.
Make Documentation Easily Accessible
Another important but often overlooked element of good documentation is its accessibility. How many times have you needed a procedure, and yet you couldn’t quickly find what you were looking for? As corporations grow, so do their file systems and documentation processes. Workers may not know where to look for their procedures or that they even exist in the first place. One of the quickest ways to foster the creation of unwanted tribal knowledge is to bury important process documentation so deep that no one can find it.
Even with all the best documentation in the world, there will be those times when someone must deal with a muddy driveway. To ensure that your corporation doesn’t stall out when critical non-standard decisions have to be made, encourage your team to feel they have the initiative and freedom to do so. You may lose control in some circumstances, and there may even be a few errors, but if you want to be ready to handle the unexpected, it requires some risk. You will develop greater operational flexibility in your company, foster a new sense of ownership, and encourage a desire to excel.
In my company, we have reorganized our department into smaller vertical teams that focus on different areas of the business. Not only has this helped our overall department efficiency, but the smaller team structures have opened communication between co-workers, which fosters the development of new processes and procedures. One example is how the teams have initiated cross-functional training to better support each other in overload situations. Instead of allowing work to pile up when the one person trained to do that job is unavailable, the work can now be spread around; this prevents a bottleneck. By freeing up our teams to take the initiative, they identified areas that have improved the workflow and increased our productivity.
So, is tribal knowledge good or bad? I would say it’s a little of both. The best approach is to find the parts of tribal knowledge that are most useful, then harvest and manage them for the benefit of the entire corporation. What do you think?
Until next time, everyone, keep on designing.
This column originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Design007 Magazine.